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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Numbers 12

Verse 1


(1) And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses.—Miriam appears to have been the leader in this insurrection against the authority of Moses. Her name occurs before that of Aaron, either as the nearer or as the more prominent subject; and the verb which is rendered “spake” is in the feminine gender. Moreover, the judgment which was inflicted (Numbers 12:10) fell upon Miriam, not upon Aaron. who seems to have yielded to the suggestions of Miriam, as he had previously done to the request of the Israelites in regard to the golden calf.

Because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married.—Some suppose that the reference is to Zipporah, who may have been included amongst the Asiatic division of the Ethiopians, or Cushites (comp. Habakkuk 3:7, where the tents of Cushan, or Cush, are coupled with the curtains of Midian), and that the occasion of the opposition to Moses was the undue influence which he is supposed to have allowed Hobab and other members of Zipporah’s family to exercise over him. This supposition, however, seems improbable on many accounts. The words, “for he had married an Ethiopian (or Cushite) woman,” naturally point to some recent occurrence, not to one which had taken place more than forty years previously, and which is, therefore, very unlikely to have given occasion to the murmuring of Miriam and Aaron at this time. Moreover, the murmuring is expressly connected with the Cushite herself, not with any of the subsequent or incidental results of the marriage. It seems, therefore, much more probable that Zipporah was dead, and that Moses had married one of the African Cushites who had accompanied the Israelites in their march out of Egypt, or one of the Cushites who dwelt in Arabia, and who were found at this time in the neighbourhood of Sinai. A similar marriage had been contracted by Joseph, and such marriages were not forbidden by the Law, which prohibited marriage with the Canaanites (Exodus 34:16).

Verse 2

(2) Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses?—There is probably a reference in these words to the facts related in Exodus 4:10-16, where Moses speaks of his own slowness of speech (Numbers 12:10), and where it is said of Aaron, “And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people” (Numbers 12:16). Miriam also is spoken of in Exodus 15:20 as “the prophetess.” “Such is the depravity of human nature,” writes Calvin, “that they not only abuse the gifts of God towards the brother whom they despise, but by an ungodly and sacrilegious glorification extol the gifts themselves in such a manner as to hide the Author of the gifts.”

Verse 3

(3) Now the man Moses was very meek . . . —These words have been urged by some as an argument against the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch generally, or of the Book of Numbers in particular, but whether they may or may not have been inserted by a later writer, this inference is altogether unfounded. It is possible that the writer of Deuteronomy 34:10 may have inserted these words in this place. On the other hand, there is no necessity for such a supposition. An objective statement, such as that contained in these words, is perfectly consistent with true humility and with a deep sense of sinfulness and frailty. When such expressions are required in order to a full understanding of all the circumstances of the history, they afford no just ground of objection either against the writer, or against the genuineness of the writing; and least of all can they be justly objected to in the case of those who, like Moses and St. Paul, were ever ready to sacrifice their own personality in the cause to which they had devoted their lives (comp. 2 Corinthians 11:5). It may be observed, further, that the word anav, meek, is frequently interchanged with the cognate word ani, and that the meaning may be bowed down, or oppressed.

Verse 4

(4) Come out ye three . . . —There is nothing in these words which implies that Miriam entered into the Tabernacle itself. Moses, Aaron, and Miriam were summoned to go out of the camp (comp. Numbers 11:30), and to come to the entrance of the Tabernacle, or rather of the court, inasmuch as the command to come as far as the entrance into the Sanctuary appears to have been given afterwards (Numbers 12:5). It must be remembered that there was but one court at this time.

Verse 6

(6) If there be a prophet . . . —Better, If there be to (or, among) ycu a prophet of Jehovah, I will make myself known unto him in a vision, and speak unto him. The LXX. and Vulgate connect the word “Jehovah” with the former, not with the latter part of the clause. The mode of communication between God and Moses differed in the respects which are enumerated in Numbers 12:8 from the mode of communication by visions or dreams, in which God communicated His will to others.

Verse 7

(7) My servant Moses . . . —Better, Not so (in regard to) my servant Moses; he is faithful. Reference is made to these words in Hebrews 3:5 : “And Moses verily was faithful in all his house,” i.e., in the whole of the Mosaic economy or dispensation, or the house of Israel, which is spoken of as God’s house. A contrast is drawn in Numbers 12:6 between the vocation of Moses as a servant in the house of God and that of Christ as a Son over His own house.

Verse 8

(8) With him will I speak.—Better, do I speak, mouth to mouth. Comp. Exodus 33:11.

Even apparently.—The noun mareh, which is here used, is cognate with that which occurs with the preposition in Numbers 12:6, and which is rendered “a vision.” It differs from it only in punctuation, and is sometimes identical in meaning. It appears, however, here to denote an objective reality, as in Exodus 3:3, where it is rendered sight. The clause might be rendered, and (as) an appearance, and not in riddles (or, enigmas).

And the similitude of the Lord . . . —Or, and the form of Jehovah doth he behold. The word which is here rendered similitude (temunah) is the same which occurs in Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 4:15-16; Deuteronomy 4:23; Deuteronomy 4:25; Deuteronomy 5:8; Psalms 17:15. It is sometimes rendered likeness, and sometimes similitude. The noun mareh, which is here rendered “apparently,” and that which is rendered similitude, are found in conjunction in Job 4:16 : “I could not discern the form (or appearance), mareh, thereof: an image (or form), temunah, was before mine eyes.” (Comp. Exodus 33:20-23.)

Verse 10

(10) And the cloud departed . . . —The withdrawal of the cloud was the visible token of the Divine displeasure. The word sar, departed, which is here used, is an entirely different word from that which occurs in Numbers 9:17 : “When the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle.” The lifting up of the cloud was the signal for the breaking up of the camp and the resumption of the march; the withdrawal of the cloud was the token of the withdrawal of the Divine presence and direction.

Leprous, white as snow.—Better, was leprous as snow, as in Exodus 4:6, where the same words occur; or, a leper (as white), as snow, as in 2 Kings 5:27. In an ordinary case of leprosy, when the disease covered the whole body, and the whole of the flesh had turned white, the man was to be pronounced clean. It was otherwise in cases in which persons were smitten with leprosy by the immediate hand of God, as in the case of Moses and in that of Gehazi.

And Aaron looked upon Miriam . . . —Or, and Aaron turned towards Miriami.e., directed his attention to her, &c. This may have been the first case in which Aaron was required to carry into execution the laws laid down in Leviticus 13:14, respecting the inspection of the leper; and the duties which devolved upon him must have been doubly painful from the fact that the leper stood in a near relationship to himself, and that he had been a participator in the sin which had called for so severe a punishment.

Verse 11

(11) Alas, my lord.—The word rendered alas! is an exclamation of entreaty rather than of lamentation. It is used towards superiors in conjunction with adoni (my lord) in Genesis 40:20; 1 Kings 3:17.

Lay not the sin upon us . . . —Better, lay not sin (i.e., the punishment which is due to it) upon us, for that (or, inasmuch as) we have done foolishly, &c. Aaron does not seek to shift the guilt which had been incurred from himself and Miriam to any others, but prays that they may not be constrained to bear the punishment which their sin had justly deserved. In Zechariah 14:19 the same word hattath is rendered punishment.

Verse 12

(12) Let her not be as one dead.—This is another of the places in which the Scribes are said to have altered the text. The original is said to have been as follows:—Let her not be as one dead, who proceeded from the womb of our mother, and half of our flesh be consumed. The leper was “as one dead” in two respects—(1) as being shut out from inter course with his brethren; and (2) as causing ceremonial defilement in the case of those who were brought into contact with him, similar to that which was caused by touching a dead body. “He was,” as Archbishop Trench has remarked, “a dreadful parable of death” (On the Miracles, p. 214). In the most severe types of leprosy there was, as the same writer has observed, “a dissolution, little by little, of the whole body, so that one limb after another actually decayed and fell away” (Ibid, p. 213).

Verse 13

(13) Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee.—Better, O God, I beseech thee, heal her, I beseech thee.

Verse 14

(14) If her father had but spit in her face.—Or, in her presence. Spitting in the presence of any one, much more spitting in the face of any one, is regarded in the East as an indication of the utmost degree of abhorrence and indignation. Comp. Deuteronomy 25:9; Job 30:10; Isaiah 1:6; Matthew 26:67.

Seven days.—This was the time during which the person suspected of being leprous was to be shut up in the first instance (Leviticus 13:4; Leviticus 13:21, &c.); and this was also the time during which the leper, when cleansed, was to “tarry abroad out of his tent,” after he had come into the camp, before the appointed sacrifices were offered on his behalf (Leviticus 14:8; Leviticus 14:10). It was thus that she who had placed herself on a level with the divinely-appointed head and ruler of her nation was to be excluded for seven days from any part or lot in the privileges which were enjoyed by the humblest member of the congregation.

Verse 15

(15) And the people journeyed not . . . —The law for the purification of the leper, as prescribed in Leviticus 14:0, had already been delivered.

Verse 16

(16) In the wilderness of Paran.—See Note on Numbers 10:12. It appears from the 26th verse of the following chapter that the encampment was at Kadesh, which has been supposed by some to be identical with Rithniah (Numbers 33:18).

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Numbers 12". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.